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Suriyothai
Thailand 2001
Director: Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol
Pamela Chang

   
 

Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol often referred to his historical objective in making the epic Suriyothai : “In Thailand, there are few history lessons and the aim of this film, therefore, is to tell our people about our history.”This impulse is strong enough for the long-awaited work, both locally and internationally, to be almost like a historical textbook, with an extremely chronological narrative, rigidly structure and with no emotional center.

The film traces the life of the young princess Suriyothai who plunged into royal politics and battles for the throne in 16 th century Thailand, after being married to Prince Yaowaraj who later became King Mahachakrapat. Suriyothai is the story of a fratricidal war between brothers and brothers, old and new dynasties, involving adultery and murder. The royal conflict ends with the coming of Burmese forces led by King Tabinshwethi. Queen Suriyothai rides into battle on an elephant armed with a slingblade to defend her city and her culture and lost her life.

The director clearly constructed the film in order to make it intelligible for general audiences, for them to grasp the historic sacrifice of the 16 th century heroine Suriyothai, despite the ‘ facts ' being dispute by local history experts.

The storytelling is strictly chronological: first, a year is introduced, either by voice-over or by words written on a black screen. Then different narratives follow one by one to relate what happens each year. With its long, five-dynasty period, the film is too awkwardly structured. Most cuts come out too quick for any emotional build-up, which was the director's signature in his earlier films. It is then almost useless to cast famous, mostly professional and award-winning actors and actresses, since they do not get enough time to show their abilities. Suriyothai is not their best.

The narrative cannot really help audiences understand the complexity of politics and battles for the throne in the Thailand of the past. There are too many details and cultural differences, of time and place. Thai audiences found the royal and old Thai dialects too complicated and tried instead to read the English subtitles, while foreigners could not understand the many cultural connotations of the Thai monarchy. Why did ancient Thailand have two kings? Why was the throne given to a prince according to the hierarchical status of his mother?

There are too many characters to concentrate. Some could have been excluded to give the film greater flexibility. There was no need to include the sequence in which the Northern Queen presents gifts as a sign of submission to the King Chairacha. It adds little to the theme except to show northern culture and luxurious costume.

The film could have been stronger if it had developed the hidden theme of women and power. To an extent, the role of three main female characters, Queen Suriyothai - a dedicated wife, Srisudachan - a legendary adulteress, and Phra Akkarachaya - a powerful peasant with sex appeal bringing to the fall of the throne – are juxtaposed to show the different ways women use in the power game. First is Phra Akkarachaya, an ordinary woman who comes in the power by using her sexuality and then brings about the downfall of the dynasty. Then there is the ‘bad' woman Srisudachan, who betrays her husband, King Dhamarach, to restore her own dynasty. Then we have the ‘good' woman, Queen Suriyothai, highly intelligent - even more than her husband - brave, and very dedicated to the kingdom and her husband. Suriyothai still represents women in the old Thai proverb: women are the rear end of elephants, signifying full support to the husband.

Another minor, interesting point involves lesbianism among Srisudachan's private servants and soldiers. They are all women, signifying a hidden lesbianism. It is no surprise to hear that the director plans to re-edit the film for international release, with a focus on Srisudachan's private life. It is also reported that a television series of a film might be made for the international market.

That, then might be the best time to see Prince Chatree's true originality and signature.

Screenplay: Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol
Editing: Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol
Director of Photography: Igor Luther, Stanislav Dorsic
Principal Cast: Piyapas Bhirombhakdi, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Chatchai Plengpanich, Mai Charoenpura, Pongpat Wachirabunjong.
Production: Prommitr Production
35mm/colour/190 minutes

 

 

 

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